In Towards a Contextual Psychology of Disablism, Brian Watermeyer critically engages topics that are widely considered tricky within disability studies (DS). Specifically, Watermeyer critiques the social model, advocates for revising the importance of ontological accounts of experiences with disability, and inserts psychology—particularly psychoanalysis—into DS conversations. These areas of inquiry manifest themselves in Watermeyer's attention to individual, emotional, and psychological processes in relation to impairment and disablist society, and in his urging for the creation of open dialogues between DS and disability community members and healthcare professionals. He contextualizes his diverse interests through his personal experiences living with disability and working as a therapist of clinical psychology, as well as DS researcher and disability activist in South Africa.

Towards a Contextual Psychology of Disablism uses psychoanalysis to construct a theoretically provocative position from which to consider disabled people's socialization and constructions of subjectivity. Applied practically, this book stresses the crucial nature of caring for individual psyches, a practice which is often ignored and disregarded in social movements. Watermeyer states, "The simplicities of material 'emancipation' are attractive, and these priorities remain real. But in my view a new, different level of engagement is essential … The idea of development occurring without devoting resources to individual transformation seems implausible" (163). In this review, I focus on Watermeyer's critique of the social model; his description of the mechanisms of psychoanalysis and its possibilities; and the book's suggestions for DS and disability communities.

Critiques of the social model of disability have arisen in last few decades (Goodley, 2001; Shakespeare and Watson, 2002; Thomas, 2004; Clare, 2009; and Erevelles, 2011). However, Watermeyer's contribution is one of the few that highlights the psycho-emotional aspects of disablism and living with impairment. He critiques the social model for over-essentializing disabled people's experiences, for its lack of ontological accounts of experiences with disability, and for its avoidance of the psychological and emotional processes that disabled people experience in a disablist society. Weaving together already-existing critiques of the social model, Watermeyer writes:

[A] focus on the public domain of structural barriers sidelines the equally politically important worlds of the personal, the bodily and the psychological. The social model was unable to make provision for disabled subjects who were diverse and embodied, with personal and psychological histories upon which social suffering had left impressions. (15)

In light of the widespread practices of injustice propagated by a medical understanding of disability, and the attendant medical industries that make disability an individual problem to be fixed and cured, bringing back an ontology of disability into disability theory is no small matter. Watermeyer carefully builds his argument on the importance of ontology, including a re-conceptualization of "impairment" as a bio-social concept—not one that is solely biomedical, as the social model of disability has proposed.

In addition to his careful, yet determined insistence on bringing back accounts of ontology, Watermeyer's work brings psychology in relation to disability studies in remarkable ways. As outlined in Towards a Contextual Psychology of Disablism, there are many reasons why psychology is avoided in DS and disability communities. Nonetheless, Watermeyer asserts that regardless of how hard we work to push the social account of disability forward, separating disability from impairment through an over-emphasis on inaccessible environments, we cannot ignore the feelings and psychic constructs of disablism born of social rejection and exclusion. His urgent appeal to acknowledge and take care of the emotional impacts of disablism aligns itself with many disabled people's need to share and express all parts of life with a disability, though these experiences have been sometimes repressed by particular political discourses and mandates. It is a tricky yet much needed move for disability studies to consider the emotional repercussions of disability and disablism. Watermeyer advises that having safe spaces where one can talk about all parts of one's experiences with disability without judgment or projection is one way to heal from the traumatizing experiences of disablism.

In order to analyze the construction of subjectivity in a disablist society, Watermeyer introduces readers to critical psychoanalysis in conjunction with DS. He defines psychoanalysis as "an attempt to name and describe subtle and unconscious aspects of experiences within and between people" (3), and is "curious about the formation of the self and … how selfhood and ideology are connected by socialization" (16). Using critical psychoanalytic theory, Watermeyer describes how social ideologies of disablism affect people's attitude toward disabled people (particularly to their differences), as well as how the attitudes are processed, and at times internalized, by disabled people. He states, "From a critical psychoanalytic perspective, disabled people are used as containers for the projection of the disavowed existential conflicts of a control-oriented, self-centered modern world" (16). Integrating these theories with the social model, Watermeyer theorizes how peoples' negative reactions and distorted perceptions can be the result of the sociopolitical and cultural disablism that surrounds us; in this way, he departs from traditional psychoanalysis, which often ignores social context. Through this critical psychoanalytic framework, Watermeyer examines disablist phenomena including debates on prenatal testing, euthanasia, eugenics, hate crimes, and medical interventions.

Watermeyer's belief in the importance of engaging issues of internalized oppression and trauma cannot be emphasized enough. Arguing that all interpersonal relations are affected by disablism, he explores how disablist discourses and attitudes shape disabled people's subjectivities and selfhoods. Bringing up case after case of those who have grown up with visible congenital disabilities, Towards a Contextual Psychology of Disablism describes how individuals' (particularly primary care providers') reactions toward disabled people (especially in infancy) shape a self-understanding through mirroring processes that can cause disabled people to produce (consciously and unconsciously) false selves to please others in order to receive affirmation. He explains this mechanism of internalized oppression as one where "the nondisabled culture consensus … projects its disavowed parts into the disabled community, who may then re-project this material—now subjectively owned—into their own 'flawed' bodies" (158). This premise leads him to suggest the importance of personal emancipation from disablism in addition to social change. Social movements, with their mandates to unite groups of diverse people, can neglect the reality of individual psychological hardships. Watermeyer, therefore, insists on the importance of disabled people owning their inner struggles in order to heal; in other words, he suggests that the psychological difficulties of living in a disablist society are not solely due to social barriers, but also to our impairments and layered internalizations of others' insecurities that were tossed at us. Psychotherapy is mentioned as one way to deal with psychological difficulties. Granted, Watermeyer acknowledges that psychotherapists have much to learn about disability; yet, he is hopeful for the possibilities psychotherapy provides disabled people. This statement brings us back to his core argument that DS and disability communities can relate to healthcare professionals "in a real way … [through] mutual awareness, co-education and collaboration" (10). This is indeed a possibility; however, as I suggest below, there are also rich possibilities for DS to affect psychoanalytic theory.

Watermeyer's book suggests the possibility for better understanding the ways perception and categories of "difference" impact the basic mechanisms of psychoanalysis, such as object relation. In psychoanalysis, perceived difference is attributed to the creation of discomfort; yet what is considered different can vary across contexts, cultures, and individual experiences. Therefore, taking Watermeyer's analysis further, how might acknowledgement of the constructed nature of perceived "difference" complicate and enrich psychoanalytic theory? Similarly, how do people's and communities' resilience in response to nondisabled people's anxieties play out in such theorizations? This would seem a more realistic path than simply situating disabled folks as passive containers for the anxiety. As one of the primary critiques of the social model is that the model lacks an understanding of the diversity found within disabled experience (one that includes mental, physical, sensory, and emotional disabilities that are both visible and invisible), such critique also inspires the question: how can critical psychoanalysis acknowledge and account for the vastness of diverse psychological processes within the diverse category of disability? Part of this need for specificity in relation to difference arises when Watermeyer uses examples of racism or sexism in order to describe disablism: as if racism, sexism, and disablism function in parallel without intersectional vectors of oppression. These oppressions (as well as many others) manifest differently through multiple injustices based on intersecting identities. I am curious, therefore, about the ways in which psychoanalysis reveals and recodes the complex identities and various differences we embody, beyond what is visible with regard to disability or ability (or race or gender, for the matter). Indeed, this book opens a wide range of existing problematics to be further explored and developed.

In Towards a Contextual Psychology of Disablism, Watermeyer affirms the emotional impacts disablism has on subjects, particularly when these impacts emerge from interpersonal interactions. His book breaks the norm of disability studies by encouraging the sharing of all aspects of living with disabilities, including the negative (e.g., loss). The book shows us how, indeed, it is time to re-introduce the personal, bodily, and psychological into DS, and to re-build bridges with health professionals to work towards mutual relationships, social changes, and a healing of disablism on all sides.


  • Clare, E. (2009). Interview: Resisting easy answers: Intersectional politics and multi-issue organizing. UPPING THE ANTI, 9.
  • Erevelles, N. (2011). Disability and difference in global contexts: Enabling a transformative body politic. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Goodley, D. (2001). "Learning difficulties," the social model of disability and impairment: challenging epistemologies. Disability & Society, 16(2), 207-231.
  • Shakespeare, T., and Watson, N. (2001). The social model of disability: An outdated ideology? Research in Social Science and Disability 2, 9-28.
  • Thomas, C. (2004). How is disability understood? An examination of sociological approaches. Disability & Society, 19(6), 569-583.
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